Reviews The World Without You by Joshua Henkin

In The World Without You, Joshua Henkin's luminous novel, Henkin examines family dynamics in the wake of tragedy.


Families are complex creatures; the sum of a family is often equal to more - or sometimes less - than its individual parts.

So it is with the Frankels, an upper middle class, Jewish family from New York City who we learn, as Joshua Henkin’s luminous novel, The World Without You, unfolds, have gathered together to attend the memorial service of the youngest Frankel, Leo, a journalist who was killed in Iraq.

There is Clarissa, a former cello prodigy who, following Leo’s death, has at age thirty-nine, become desperate to have a baby.  Lily, the second oldest, is a public interest lawyer living in Washington and is angry at everyone.  Next is Noelle who, after a promiscuous and unsettled childhood, has become an Orthodox Jew, and flown in for the memorial from Jerusalem, husband and four young sons in tow.  The Frankel parents, Marilyn and David, have seen the ties of their long marriage un-tether as each mourns Leo in his/her own way; Marilyn, as a Cindy Sheehan-ish figure with angry op-ed pieces and letters to President Bush; and David quietly and inwardly, focusing on opera librettos and cooking classes.  Leo’s widow Thisbe and son Calder have flown in from California, Calder with only the vaguest memories of his father, and Thisbe with a new secret love.

The World Without You takes place in 2004 over the course of the Fourth of July weekend.  Each family member remembers and mourns Leo differently, which ultimately impacts the relationships of the surviving Frankels.  The world without Leo creates a void, and a subsequent shifting, as each character deals with both a personal loss and the reconfiguration of the family entity.

The character of Leo Frankel bears a strong resembling to Daniel Pearl, the American journalist murdered by Islamic radicals in Pakistan in 2002, but Henkin doesn’t dwell on the political.  Instead, he focuses on the characters, their histories, their loves, their lives; the nuances that make each of us unique.  Despite the holiday background, there are no emotional fireworks, no thundering climaxes or “aha” moments in The World Without You; just the slow paced occurrences of life:  meals shared, conversations had, tennis games, swims.  It is through the everyday moments that Henkin is able to flesh out the distinctiveness of each character; by teasing out these qualities, we get to know each of them and understand his/her role in the family and the world.  We watch the family morph as they gather together to commemorate the one person who brought them all together; we watch them shift and turn away.

In the Frankels, Joshua Henkin has created a real family – imperfect as any as they journey through their grief.  As a reader, it is a pleasure to be taken along for the ride.   

To purchase The World Without You, click here.